According to a criminal complaint filed Dec. 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, Ellreese Daniels acted "in a grossly negligent manner that constituted wanton or reckless disregard for human life" while he led a crew of firefighters in efforts to suppress a wildfire in the Okanogan National Forest in Washington state. Daniels, at the time, was a Forest Service crew boss trainer and was serving as incident commander for the wildfire, which is known as the Thirtymile Fire.
The complaint asserts that Daniels' poor decisions on July 10, 2001, allowed a team of 14 firefighters to become trapped by the wildfire in the Chewuch River box canyon. The fire burned over Daniels' crew and two civilians, killing squad boss Tom Craven and rookie firefighters Karen Fitzpatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver. Firefighter Jason Emhoff sustained serious burns.
Daniels is being charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of making material false statements to the Forest Service and OSHA. According to the complaint, Daniels made the false statements when the two agencies – as part of their investigations of the firefighters' deaths – interviewed Daniels about his actions during the Thirtymile Fire.
An attorney for Daniels said that the leveling of criminal charges against Daniels sets a bad precedent that is tantamount to firefighters "being second-guessed in the field by people who weren't there."
Affidavit: Conditions Were Right for "Extreme Fire Behavior"
The complaint contains a lengthy affidavit by John Parker, a special agent with the Department of Agriculture-Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG). The Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.
As part of USDA-OIG's investigation of the Thirtymile Fire deaths, Parker interviewed Daniels' surviving crew members and others involved in the firefighting efforts.
According to Parker's affidavit, roughly half of Daniels' crew members were rookies. After several hours of struggling to fight the fire, Daniels and crew boss trainee Pete Kampen disengaged their crew from fighting the fire and went to a designated "lunch spot." "They indicated to the crew that they had lost the fire and that it would be an 'air show,'" Parker wrote.
Daniels and part of his crew later left the lunch area to assist a fire engine with a spot fire in another part of the canyon. In the affidavit, Parker is critical of Daniels' decision to leave the lunch area.
"Mr. Daniels acknowledged in the videotaped interview on July 12, 2001, that green foliage had been burning earlier in the day, which he recognized was unusual," Parker wrote. "Moreover, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Kampen disengaged the fire earlier in the day after trees began torching, which generated airborne embers that caused spot fires. In the videotaped interview, Mr. Daniels said that the fire had made 'pretty intense' quarter-mile runs, that the relative humidity had fallen to about 8 or 9 percent, that the wind was about 17 mph and that the winds were pushing up canyon after he disengaged the fire on the east side of the river and pulled the crew back to the lunch area."
"These conditions would support extreme fire behavior. Nevertheless, Mr. Daniels re-engaged the fire without posting a lookout who could see what the fire was doing. Similarly, Mr. Daniels did not send anyone to scout the fire before re-engaging."
Daniels Expressed Belief that the "Fire Would Burn Around Them"
Eventually, Daniels and "two squads of the relatively inexperienced fire crew" and two civilian hikers found themselves trapped by the fire in the box canyon. Daniels instructed his 14-member team to "retreat north to a location on the road, parallel to the Chewuch River."
According to Parker's affidavit, Daniels and the two squads waited at that location for more than a half-hour before the fire reached them.
"Mr. Daniels repeatedly told crew members to stay calm and expressed his belief that the fire would burn around them," Parker wrote. "His plan was to let the fire burn by to the north, up canyon, and then to drive south on the road and out of the canyon. He took no steps to prepare the site or the crew for a possible deployment of individual fire shelters.
"Even though an entrapment is viewed by firefighting agencies as a highly unusual and undesirable development, Mr. Daniels did not notify dispatch of the entrapment."
Fire Orders Violated, Watch-Outs Ignored
Parker asserts that Daniels violated several fire orders, including "recognize current weather conditions and obtain forecasts" and "establish lookouts in potentially hazardous situations." He also alleges that Daniels ignored several watch-out situations, including "weather becoming hotter and drier."
Violating and ignoring these accepted fire safety practices, according to Parker, caused Daniels and two of his squads to become trapped. After that, "Daniels engaged in gross negligence by failing to prepare the crew for a possible deployment" of their individual fire shelters.
At 5:24 p.m., "the fire jumped the river with great intensity and burned over" Daniels' two squads and the two civilians. Referencing an interview with crew member Scott Scherzinger, Parker notes that the crew "knew where the fire was coming from and could see it getting darker from the smoke."
"Mr. Scherzinger said that the smoke column was building, there were 200-foot flames through the tops of the trees and they could hear the fire coming through the trees," Parker wrote. "Then the embers started coming down. The fire progressed from spot fires to flames coming all over them, all within about 5 to 10 minutes, more likely 5 minutes. It went from a situation where conversation was still possible to sounding like a freight train was coming over them."
Although the crew members deployed their fire shelters – eight on the road and six on an uneven scree slope – Craven, Fitzpatrick, Johnson and Weaver died from asphyxiation when they "inhaled superheated air that had entered their shelters, apparently through openings on the uneven ground."
Attorney: Prosecution of Daniels Could Have "Chilling Effect"
Attorney Christina Hunt, who is representing Daniels, explained to OccupationalHazards.com that firefighters must make rapid-fire decisions in constantly changing environments. She asserted that the federal government's prosecution of Daniels could have a "chilling effect … on the ability of firefighters to do their job."
"Knowledge that any decision you make could result in a criminal charge being placed against you is going to limit the number of people who want to engage in firefighting, because they're going to be constantly concerned that they could be criminally charged for any decisions that they make," Hunt told OccupationalHazards.com.
Hunt added that, based on "the history and the culture of wildland firefighting," Daniels' actions were not unusual.
"And I think the evidence is going to play that out," she said.